This report is the seventh of a 12-part series on the changing face of the Indian slum, chronicling stories of new social and economic trends in our impoverished neighbourhoods.
In a matter of minutes, a flash mob pops up and melts into the bowels of Sarai Kale Khan village, a slum in front of a bus terminal by that name on Ring Road in Delhi. Two makeshift blue-coloured tin shelters allotted for the homeless by the government on the pavement are where the dancers practise. For them, dance is liberating, an escape from the vice-like grip of drugs.
The shelter looks like two shipping containers with a triangular roof. Inside, some people are asleep, women breastfeed babies, and children scamper here and there. It is hot and the two ceiling fans fail to keep the summer heat away. Picture charts of animals and alphabets adorn the walls.
Boys and girls are waiting in a corner for their teacher, Ravi. Once he arrives, the shelter reverberates to the sounds of popular Bollywood numbers, as it does every afternoon from 2.30 p.m. to 4.30 p.m. The children want to become professional dancers. As Ravi walks in, they greet him and stand in single file in the middle of the room. He turns on the stereo and the children break into hip-hop. The rehearsal goes on for an hour, and Ravi corrects their postures now and then.
The children, in greying clothes and muddied faces, take a break. Some rest on the mats, others fill their bottles from the four black water tanks outside the shelter. Jyoti, a 16-year-old rag-picker sporting a salwar-kurta and painted nails, is regarded as the best dancer in the troupe, which goes by the name ‘Bacchon ki Ashaayein’ (Hopes of children).
The stitches and bruises on her right wrist tell the story of her life at the railway station. “I always wanted to be a professional dancer,” she says. Like many rag-pickers at the Nizamuddin railway station, she turned to dance to escape from drugs, poverty and crime.
Jyoti’s family landed in Delhi in the early 2000s from Jaitpur in Bihar. With no work, the family begged at the railway station, the Sarai Kale Khan Bus terminal and at traffic signals. For almost a decade, they slept under the Sarai Kale Khan flyover and sometimes in a nearby forest, where the Millennium Bus Depot came up in 2010.
But to survive at the station, where fights with blades over the ownership of garbage are a common occurrence, Jyoti had to become part of an unofficial drug gang. “A person cannot survive alone. One has to join one group or the other,” she says.
Each gang is led by a ‘guru’ (head), who is usually in his late teens or early 20s. “A guru is considered strong only after he’s been to Tihar Jail.” From rag-picking and pick-pocketing to drugs and alcohol, children are taught ways to survive.
Not an easy choice
Jyoti, too, was a drug addict until two years ago. When the non-governmental organisation Chetna started a centre for children in Nizamuddin Basti and later in the Sarai Kale Khan village, she decided to give up drugs for dance. But it wasn’t easy. She not only had to resist the craving for drugs but also leave her friends.
Her ‘guru’ said that if she went to the centre, she would have to leave them. “I had to make a choice — dance or drugs,” she says. “And I chose life.”
For a change, people in the slum are encouraging these children to get into dance so that they will not wreck their lives.
Ravi, who came clean a decade ago, mentors the children and makes sure that they don’t go back to the dark life. At times, when children like Jyoti show signs of returning to drugs, he makes crucial interventions. He guides them, tells them how not to think about drugs, and advises them to invest their energies in something constructive like dance.
After his parents died in a building collapse in Faridabad, Ravi came to the Nizamuddin Dargah in 2002. He survived on free food distributed outside the shrine and slept under the Okhla flyover. “It is impossible not to get into substance abuse,” says the professional dancer.
He enrolled in a dance academy to learn hip-hop. Now, he has been teaching dance to the slum children for the past two years. “Children who are addicted to correction fluid and alcohol fall while dancing, but it is my job to make them stand again,” he says.
The 20 minute-long break over, the children return to the temporary shelter to make their next move in sync.